How America’s top Nazi hunter plans to bring Russian war criminals to justice
Eli Rosenbaum’s long career has seen him face “the inconceivable”—twice.
Four decades ago, fresh out of Harvard Law School, he joined the Justice Department’s notorious Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations, which he would later lead.
Now, the longtime atrocity crimes prosecutor has been hired by Attorney General Merrick Garland to lead Washington’s efforts to investigate Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
“The inconceivable has happened,” Rosenbaum said Tuesday at a US Institute of Peace event on pursuing Russian war crimes accountability. Both Russians and Ukrainians fell victim to the Nazis, Rosenbaum said in a moving appeal. Russians and Ukrainians languished together in Nazi concentration camps.
“Two countries that were invaded by the Nazis, one is now attacking the other – and honestly, when I hear the President of the Russian Federation calling Ukraine Nazis, it’s like fingers on the board for me, but much worse,” he continued, speaking alongside Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova and the State Department’s Goodwill Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice, Beth Van Schaack. “Everyone knows who is channeling the Nazis into waging a war of aggression and committing atrocities.”
Rosenbaum gained worldwide acclaim in the world of international criminal justice for her inventive legal approaches to investigating and, later, prosecuting those who had committed crimes against humanity during World War II. He’ll bring that experience to his new role, say former Rosenbaum colleagues Jewish insider.
“The Americans are sending a signal. This is a very, very important step, and he is a highly qualified professional. His dedication is truly legendary,” said Efraim Zuroff, leader of Nazi hunters at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
But Rosenbaum also brings a historical – and personal – understanding of this conflict and war crimes.
Her father served in the United States Army during World War II, and some of the detainees he interrogated during the war were later tried at Nuremberg. “I don’t know if that led me to this job or not,” Rosenbaum told JI in 2020. “It probably played a role.” The pair only briefly discussed his father’s experience in World War II once, when Rosenbaum was 14: “We never talked about it, actually. He lived for many, many decades – and we certainly talked about my work – but it was just too close to home.
Rosenbaum, 67, first joined the Justice Department in 1980, in the fledgling OSI, an experimental Nazi-hunting unit. He has been with the department since, except for four years in the 1980s, which he spent at a law firm and then at the World Jewish Congress. More recently, he oversaw the department’s human rights enforcement strategy and policy regarding other atrocity crimes in places like the former Yugoslavia.
“I cut my teeth, of course, so to speak, on Nazi cases, but I and my colleagues have also been working on cases involving post-war conflicts for decades,” he said on Tuesday.
At OSI, Rosenbaum devised unique approaches to finding evidence of Nazi war crimes, especially when much of the documentation was hidden behind the Iron Curtain.
“Most of the crimes of the Holocaust, almost all of the murders, were committed in Eastern Europe, which had come under Soviet control after the war,” said Elizabeth White, now a historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. who worked with Rosenbaum for more than two decades at OSI. “Much of the documentation that had survived had been seized by the Red Army and was inaccessible in the Soviet archives.”
Historians and prosecutors working for the US government created lines of communication with the Soviets, but the Communist government did not cooperate as Washington hoped.
“There was no free access to witnesses. They would produce the witnesses. And they picked people, of course, who fit their political interests,” Zuroff said. Meanwhile, U.S. judges were “very reluctant to credit evidence and witnesses who came from Communist-controlled countries,” White said, so investigators had to find corroborating evidence in Western archives. It was a circuitous and often frustrating process, but many of the prosecutions of Nazi war criminals who had fled to the United States would not have been possible without Soviet cooperation.
Now, as an adviser for war crimes accountability, Rosenbaum faces a potentially more difficult task: getting anyone in Russia to help the United States and its European allies as they investigate the country.
In his remarks Tuesday, Rosenbaum urged Russians to consider their proud history of assisting the United States in its investigation of Nazi war criminals. (A DOJ spokesperson declined to make Rosenbaum available for an interview.)
“For anyone who might be watching in Russia, read the story. My colleagues and I were constantly criticized for collaborating with Moscow in these cases, but it was the right thing to do. We followed the trail of evidence there where it was leading,” Rosenbaum said, resulting in justice for Ukrainian and Russian victims of the Nazis.
The road ahead for Rosenbaum and Ukraine’s allies in Europe will be long; investigations unfold quietly, over months, years, even decades, as in the case of Nazi prosecutions. Last year, a Tennessee man was extradited from the United States to Germany after Rosenbaum and his team uncovered evidence that the naturalized American citizen had worked during the war as an armed guard at a Neuengamme subcamp. .
“It’s not something that’s going to happen in the short term. It’s a long-term project,” White said. She noted, for example, the recent conviction of a former Syrian regime intelligence officer in Germany for crimes he committed in Damascus in 2006.
“People travel. So, for example, you have trials of Syrian regime perpetrators in Germany, because they are there, and then their victims are there, and so they were able to sue them,” White said. . Rosenbaum will likely work to ensure that when those identified as Russian war criminals travel outside of Russia – which they eventually do – they face criminal consequences.
The German prosecution took place following an unlikely coincidence: the victim of the Syrian officer recognized him in a refugee center in Berlin. With Russia, Rosenbaum will have to dedicate resources to talking to victims, but also trying to figure out who in the Kremlin bears responsibility for war crimes.
“You want to be able to sue the people most responsible for the worst damage. But sometimes it’s not as simple as it seems. It may not be the commander on the ground. Perhaps it was someone in Moscow, sitting in Moscow, who gave the order to carry out an attack in such a way that collateral damage, even if he did not want to kill civilians, many civilians were killed,” Zuroff said. “This person in Moscow bears the responsibility.” Well, there will be no cooperation from the Russians. So that’s one of the difficulties he’s going to have to face.
Rosenbaum acknowledged that the work will be done slowly and under the radar — even though some of the recent actions by the United States and its partners have drawn global attention.
“Recent superyacht seizures through the work of the DOJ-led KleptoCapture interagency task force, work we do alongside our global partners, are understandably in the headlines,” he said at the event. PICU. “But much, much more is happening behind the scenes as we continue to use all available resources and employ cutting-edge investigative techniques to hold accountable those individuals whose criminal actions enable unjust and cruel war. of Russia against Ukraine.”
Ukraine has already started trying Russian soldiers for war crimes. The first case resulted in a guilty verdict for a Russian soldier accused of killing a civilian, carrying a life sentence.
Charging Russians with war crimes in the US justice system is legally difficult due to jurisdictional issues, although Rosenbaum’s team will surely help Ukrainian prosecutors as well. But the US can only prosecute a person for war crimes if the victim is a US citizen.
The cases Rosenbaum brought against the Nazis did not charge them with war crimes – instead, he worked to deport Nazis who moved to the United States after the war, or he helped other countries on similar extradition matters.
“Eli Rosenbaum’s experience is now legendary. I worked with him in the 1990s when I was Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues and occasionally helped him bring Nazi perpetrators of atrocities to justice, including one who had fled to Argentina and had to be brought to justice in Croatia,” said David Scheffer, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He is a consummate professional and his decades of experience hunting down Nazi war criminals and ensuring they no longer live freely in the United States prepares him well for the challenge ahead.”
Legal logistics and issues of process, investigation and documentation will be resolved in the months and years to come. But Rosenbaum’s goal, he says, is simple.
“We have a clear and simple message for anyone who would even consider participating in the commission of war crimes and other serious crimes in Ukraine,” Rosenbaum said. “One word: don’t.”